#1 Billboard Hit: Bruce Springsteen and a Giant Sign

By Alex Rice

This article contains excerpts from the 16-page Bruce Springsteen zine included with the Bruce Springsteen Bandbox.

If Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band slowed down a little after a whirlwind Year of Our Boss 1973 that included two studio albums, 200 shows and probably two million miles traveled, it was only to gear up for rocketing into the stratosphere via Thunder Road.

Springsteen’s magnum opus, the meticulously-crafted Born to Run, finally arrived in August 1975. Its eight tracks took his rapidly-expanding fanbase on a journey that began with a beautiful girl’s expectant slam of the screen door in Anytown, U.S.A., cruised down the Jersey Turnpike and emptied out into a young man’s vision of a world of possibilities. Off he screamed into the night. Running into the darkness. Riding through mansions of glory. Getting wasted in the heat.

Born to Run’s side-two-opening title track was a monumental accomplishment in itself. Bruce’s iconic guitar riff, Clarence Clemons’s heroic sax blasts and Danny Federici’s now-familiar glockenspiel clangs were the result of seven months of a perfectionist’s pursuit of the sound he heard in his head. In all, 72 recorded tracks were painstakingly whittled down to the mixing deck’s maximum of 16.

Seven months, though, was nothing compared to the wait that Springsteen and his apostles were forced to endure following the career-catapulting success of Born to Run. Manager Mike Appel’s handling of The Boss’s finances had caused Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez to show his teeth. The singer took his business guy’s side over his drummer’s at the time, but it wouldn’t be long before Mike was no longer the Appel of Bruce’s eye. A lengthy legal fight ensued after Appel was replaced by former rock critic Jon Landau (still Springsteen’s most trusted advisor to this day), forbidding him and his group from entering the studio to record a follow-up until June 1977.

That drawn-out court battle was a costly ordeal - to Bruce’s pocketbook, to his primal urge to make music with his friends, to his reputation. A 1993 tell-all by Appel, Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen, attempted to further drag his former employer’s name through the mud. The saddest part was that, at the heart of the matter, was an ex-ally who Bruce recognized was, despite the acrimony, in no small part responsible for his successes. 

The lawsuit clearly took its toll on the wide-eyed 27-year-old. When he returned with Darkness on the Edge of Town in June 1978, those youthful characters escaping their homes in “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” were all of a sudden hardened townies, toiling away in a “Factory,” chasing  an unattainable “Something in the Night,” paying the cost for wanting things only found on the fringes of society.

Despite the more somber tone of the music, there was plenty to celebrate in the Bruce Springsteen world. Darkness gave him his second of eight consecutive Top 5 albums on the Billboard 200, and the storied performances from its accompanying tour gave the members of The E Street Band their first taste of headlining the arenas they still occupy today.

That 115-date North American trek’s biggest show was a sold-out concert at the 13,000-capacity L.A. Forum on July 5, which was promoted with a huge billboard donning Bruce’s mug on Sunset Boulevard. Maybe it was nerves about the biggest gig of his life or perhaps the E Streeters enjoyed themselves a little too much on Independence Day, but about 18 hours before they took the stage, Bruce assembled a posse to tag the giant sign with graffiti.

Under the cover of darkness, Bruce, Clemons, bassist Garry Tallent and several roadies gathered under the cover of Darkness and climbed up the billboard’s ladder. “PROVE IT ALL NIGHT E STREET” was all they could muster. “I wanted to get to my face and paint on a mustache,” he revealed to biographer Dave Marsh, who also asked his subject if he had been worried about being caught. “Naw, I figured if they caught us, that was great. And if we got away with it, that was even better.”

Nevertheless, a salient point had been made. Nobody else can sully The Boss’s good name. Only Bruce Springsteen can deface Bruce Springsteen.

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Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.